On 24th July 2019 Boris Johnson appointed a woman of Indian descent, born in London to parents who had fled Uganda, to one of the great offices of state.
Two years later, Priti Patel remains Home Secretary, and has introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill, intended to deter illegal entry into the UK, the most conspicuous route being by small boat from France.
On Tuesday, Patel told readers of The Daily Mail: “This cannot go on and as Home Secretary I will not allow this to continue.”
By introducing a two-tier system, making those who arrive illegally in the UK far less eligible for asylum and far more liable to be deported, Patel promises she will break the power of the people smugglers.
Henry Hill has examined, for ConHome, how likely these plans are to succeed, but we shall not know for sure until the legislation has been passed, and operated for a reasonable period of time.
Enver Solomon, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, has suggested on this site that trying to send refugees who have arrived illegally in Britain back either to the safe countries through which they have passed, or to their countries of origin, will not work, and will merely increase the already disgraceful backlog of cases.
The Home Office’s administrative record is so poor that one cannot feel much confidence in its ability to clear the backlog. Nor is Patel’s task made easier by the leaking from time to time of implausible proposals said to be under consideration by her department – waves in the Channel, a detention centre in Rwanda or on Ascension Island.
But these obstacles in some ways make Patel’s appointment all the more comprehensible. It is harder for liberal critics to impute racism, or undue severity, to a Home Secretary who herself belongs to an ethnic minority.
And Patel is in any case capable of showing a remarkable imperviousness to argument, as when she defended the death penalty against opposition from Harriet Harman and Ian Hislop in a Question Time debate in 2011, the year after she entered the Commons.
“She’s small and a woman and an Asian – to be heard she has to be quite aggressive,” a parliamentarian who knows her well remarked, and went on:
“She is intolerant of people who disagree with her. I think she does go too far.
“People do like her straight talking. That’s part of her appeal. I’m full of admiration for her. It’s a bloody tough job. She’s still there.”
She might not be there. In February 2020 Sir Philip Rutnam, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, resigned, claimed he had been “the target of a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign”, and accused Patel of bullying staff.
Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minister’s Independent Advisor on Ministerial Standards, looked into these allegations, and in November 2020 concluded:
“My advice is that the Home Secretary has not consistently met the high standards
required by the Ministerial Code of treating her civil servants with consideration
and respect. Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be
described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals. To that extent her
behaviour has been in breach of the Ministerial Code, even if unintentionally.
This conclusion needs to be seen in context. There is no evidence that she was
aware of the impact of her behaviour, and no feedback was given to her at the
time. The high pressure and demands of the role, in the Home Office, coupled
with the need for more supportive leadership from top of the department has
clearly been a contributory factor. In particular, I note the finding of different and
more positive behaviour since these issues were raised with her.”
Johnson, as ultimate arbiter of the Ministerial Code, decided to stand by Patel, and Sir Alex resigned.
When Patel was interviewed by ConHome in 2015, she described how her family lost everything in Uganda, and the death of her mother’s father soon afterwards in India:
“He was a businessman. So he had tea factories, cotton plantations, coffee plantations as well. My grandfather was incredibly well known in Uganda. R.U.Patel, a very pious man, so always giving back to the community, very religious, a big Swaminar in the Hindu community.
“I think the trauma, it was just incredible for my entire family, for my Mum’s family in particular. My Dad’s family were shopkeepers as well. Everyone in that era of East African Asians was hugely displaced, hugely displaced, their rights taken away from them, and they were persecuted for what they had.”
They arrived in Britain with nothing, and set out to rebuild the family fortunes:
“And it was from a people point of view just deeply challenging. You know, hostile, immigrants coming in, really, really difficult. I was born [in 1972] in Islington, in Highbury, and my Mum and Dad rented a room off an elderly man in Finsbury Park, and that’s where we lived.
“Typically in Indian culture, if you’re the eldest you bear the burden of everything else in terms of family responsibility. So my Dad, who’s the eldest, he’s got a brother and two sisters, did the right thing, he had to think about looking after his Mum and Dad and his brother and sisters.
“So my Dad dropped out of university to just get a job, basically, to get cash wherever he could, low-skilled work, just to build up pots of money to get some security. So he then helped my grandfather, his Dad, to buy a shop in Tottenham, Number One, White Hart Lane.
“That was a newsagent. That gave my grandparents the footing to get on. My Dad became a shopkeeper as well. My parents have been self-employed like that for over 40 years. So I effectively grew up on top of a shop for most of my life. So we’ve done everything from newspapers to post offices to small supermarkets.”
Patel grew up with Thatcherite assumptions. Her father rose at four in the morning every day for 40 years and built up a chain of newsagents despite unfair competition from the established chains, who saw to it that independent competitors got the papers too late to be sure of delivering them in time for breakfast.
She went to Watford Grammar School, studied economics at Keele and politics at Essex University, became a devout Eurosceptic as well as Thatcherite, joined the Conservative Party in 1991, from 1995-97 was head of press for the Referendum Party, but rejoined the Conservatives as a press officer under William Hague, and also worked for several years in public relations.
At the 2005 general election she stood for the Conservatives in the safe Labour seat of Nottingham North. Early in David Cameron’s leadership she was placed on the A list of candidates, and in 2006 she put in for the newly created seat of Witham, in Essex.
The finalists for what was going to be a safe Conservative seat included Geoffrey Van Orden, who was already an MEP and had served as a brigadier at Nato, James Brokenshire, whose seat of Hornchurch was going to be abolished, and Patel, who looked like an outsider.
There was an open primary, and Baroness Jenkin, who was in the audience of about 200 people and in 2005 had co-founded Women2Win with Theresa May, recalls that when Patel started to speak, “It was very clear straight away that she appealed to Conservatives but also to people who weren’t Conservatives.”
Patel, who had begun to wonder whether she would be selected anywhere, was the unexpected victor, and on arriving at Westminster said in her maiden speech:
“My own deep and personal interest in what I call the economics of enterprise and small business stems from my family background…my youth was literally spent sleeping above the shop and playing directly under the till, while watching my family—thanks to the free-market policies of Margaret Thatcher—thrive and grow. Wherever my parents set up shop, they employed local people, contributed to the local community, and made a substantial contribution to the local economy.”
Along with Kwasi Kwarteng, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, she wrote Britannia Unchained, published in 2011 and somewhat critical of the British attitude to work:
“Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”
Harsh words, but four of the five authors are now in the Cabinet. Perhaps this is a more Thatcherite administration than has yet been noticed by the pundits.
Patel rose swiftly, in 2015 becoming Minister of State at the Department of Work and Pensions, and in 2016 backing Leave in the referendum campaign and Theresa May for the leadership, who rewarded her with the post of International Development Secretary.
But Patel had already displayed a marked capacity for annoying some of those around her. Here is Sasha Swire in her diary entry for 12 November 2015:
“Modi comes to town. Priti Patel has been inserting herself into this trip at every turn. As the PM’s Indian Diaspora Champion she does have a role, but she is behaving like the Minister for India, which is actually what Hugo [Sasha’s husband] is. Sure enough, she turns up at the VIP suite to greet Modi. She has also done all the press that morning, at Craig Oliver’s insistence, and got herself invited to a small lunch with the Queen when we were told no ministers were invited. H has thrown a wobbly…”
Sir Alan Duncan is even less complimentary in his diaries, in which she is variously referred to as Priti Horrendous, Priti Outrageous, Priti Appalling, Priti Frightful and Priti Unspeakable. In his entry for 23 January 2017 we read:
“They hate Priti Patel in DfID, mainly because she seems to hate all of them.”
Patel came a cropper at DfID when it was revealed in November 2017 that she had held a series of meetings with senior Israeli figures without informing the Foreign Office, or indeed the Prime Minister. A senior Tory backbencher and former minister described this episode to ConHome as “absolutely disgraceful”, and after a much publicised flight home from Africa, some not entirely candid statements about whom she had seen in Israel, and two meetings with May, she was obliged to resign.
In July 2019, Johnson put her back in the Cabinet in the altogether more senior role of Home Secretary. Here she has developed, presumably at his behest, a more stringent immigration policy than liberal opinion would wish.
Lord Lexden, official historian of the Conservative Party, yesterday reminded ConHome that the choice between being stringent and liberal about immigration is by no means new:
“As is well known, Tory Home Secretaries have to choose between offending much of their party and alienating the complacent lefties who always seem to be in the ascendant at the Home Office.
“Perhaps no holder of the post pleased the Party more, or attracted more derision from bien pensants, than Sir William Joynson-Hicks, known as Jix, who served throughout the five years of Baldwin’s dominant second cabinet of 1924-9. He detested short sentences, and thought prisons should be the permanent homes of the irredeemably wicked.
“His proudest boast, however, was to have stemmed ‘the tide pouring in here to secure better conditions than can be obtained in their own lands’. He visited the Channel ports amid great publicity, and looked into immigration control arrangements in minute detail.
“Afterwards, he told the Commons that ‘few aliens crept through the net that stretched round the coast, and that most of those who evaded the net were subsequently discovered and deported.’ Priti Patel must take heart from Jix’s success a century ago.”